Are there any things that children do better than adults?
It's been hard to nail down what kids do better. If you pick up a developmental psychology journal at random, you're likely to find an article on some interesting psychological task, and you'll find that adults are better than older kids, and older kids are better than younger kids. Most things, adults are better at. That's one reason I think learning at any age has to do with motivation and time devoted to tasks. Kids are better at acquiring language than adults but we don't really have a good explanation for why.
The one place kids seem to be at an advantage is low-level acoustic phenomena. That may be one reason they're better at accents and cultivating perfect pitch
That seems to be a fairly circumscribed set of things.
I think that's right. I think the former paradigm was that you really had to learn a skill early. And it's still probably better to learn it early. But you don't have to give up hope if you want to continue learning
What in the neuroscience literature demonstrates this plasticity?
Some of best studies are by Eric Knudsen at Stanford. He showed adult barn owls could do similar things as young owls if they learned them incrementally. Another study showed that the older owls could do just as well in a real-world context if there were predators around. The way I interpret these studies is that incentive and motivation are critical.
Are there a set of recommendations you could give to adults who want to take up an instrument?
Take it slow, give yourself space. Don't expect success overnight and invest a lot of time. People expect kids to take a long time but they sort of want adults to be done right away. Adults pick up a guitar and want to play their favorite song right away, and kids are more accepting that "I'm just playing these three notes today."
Do you think there's a role for new technologies like transcranial magnetic stimulation that may allow us to turn off interfering mental processes in the brain that prevent learning?
As we better understand the dynamics of memory we may be able to overcome some of the problem interferences place on learning new things—and that might come pharmacologically or using techniques like brain stimulation.
What were your original goals when you started to play guitar, and did you proceed further than expected?
My original goal was just be able to play at all. And then to make music for myself. I've succeeded more than I imagined, and it brings me enormous pleasure.